Volume 10 Number 1
Why Poland Needs Her Jews
01 February 1997

The Jewish community in Poland almost died out after World War II. Milowit Kuninski explores the reconciliation that has made a rebirth possible.

Some 30 years ago a 16-year-old boy was walking up the Wawel Hill in Krakow, an ancient city in Poland. There the royal castle and a cathedral have stood for the last 800 years. He decided to go along the river near the castle to see other churches he had glimpsed from the hilltop.
He went on and on, finally reaching a square in a part of town that looked different. On the walls there were still visible inscriptions in Hebrew or Yiddish, languages he did not know but which had been spoken here more than 20 years before.

The houses were partly derelict and the ordinary people living there spoke uneducated Polish and certainly were not Jews. Other buildings had been synagogues before, but now only two of them were used by the small Jewish community. As the boy visited a 16th century cemetry, he had a strange feeling of the presence of those who had lived there for centuries.

Yet they had had no chance to die calmly, remembered by their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They had perished: captured, put into a ghetto to die of hunger or taken to death camps to be gassed and cremated by the Nazis. But they were still present in the memories of the few who had survived. The young boy visited this part of town many times, interested in the life of the citizens of the Jewish quarter.

The boy was myself. I, like many Poles, felt the incompleteness of the life in this town. Twenty years later some of my students had similar feelings and began studying Jewish history and culture.

This interest in the cultural legacy of Polish Jews is a way of partially reconstructing mutual relationships, remembering the millions murdered during World War II, and of expiating the wrong-doing and insufficient help provided at that time.

Mutual relationships between Poles and Jews began almost a thousand years ago when Jews were allowed to settle in many towns of the Kingdom of Poland. The Jews were given privileges and protection by the Polish kings. They were subject to their own laws and courts. They lived in separate communities but slowly began to participate in the economic and cultural life of the Poles.

To put it philosophically, there was a constant Polish-Jewish dialogue for the last thousand years which ended during the Holocaust. Academia and the arts provided a common platform for this dialogue among intellectuals and artists, while in small towns and villages, the two peoples lived together without major conflicts.

19th and 20th century Poland was not a paradise for Jews and other minorities, but the experience of peaceful coexistence cannot be neglected. It is testified to by family oral tradition, memoirs, literature and historical books. Although between the wars there were elements of anti-Semitism, these should not be compared with the deliberate anti-Jewish policies and racial laws in Hitler's Germany.

In 1939 Poland was invaded by Germany and Russia at almost the same time. Poles were executed in the streets, forced to leave their homes and farms and put into German or Russian labour camps. The Polish Jews had no chance at all: they were to die as soon as possible, together with Jews from other countries transported to German death camps set up on Polish soil.

Both the Polish Jews and non-Jews were victims of the war. This has been a source of misunderstanding between them, and has led to a preposterous competition of victims, as one of my Jewish friends puts it. Only during the last 15 years, due to public discussions over the meaning of Jewish extermination, have the Poles recognized the difference in scale between the Holocaust and the persecutions they themselves suffered.

Polish-Jewish relations during the war had their bright and dark sides. On one hand there were thousands of Poles, many of them poor peasants, who, although threatened by the death sentence, saved many Jews. On the other hand, there were many who betrayed Jews by informing the Gestapo or blackmailing Jews to get ransoms.

After the war there was no real possibility of discussing the truth about Polish-Jewish relations. In 1968 the rest of the Jewish community in Poland (tens of thousands) was forced to leave the country. This was a deliberate policy of the Polish communist government which was seeking credibility by exciting nationalistic feelings through anti-Semitic purges. As there were many Jews within the higher ranks of the Communist Party who had come to Poland with the Soviets in 1944-45, it was easy to get acceptance for anti-Semitic policies from those who wanted the posts for themselves and from a part of the public who imagined they would be better governed by 'our' rather than by 'their' communists.

During the 1980s the absurd competition of victims was counter-balanced by the open discussion of Jewish-Polish relations, particularly of Polish attitudes towards Jews during the war. The discussions demystified certain beliefs, and words of truth, sometimes hard to digest, were spoken by Jews and Poles.

The humility of representatives of the older generation was very important. They remembered the war and felt responsibility for their whole generation. Their message was simple: they wanted to apologize for any form of anti-Semitism committed by the Poles and for not being strong enough and brave enough to save more of their Jewish neighbours.

The role of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, and of the Polish pope himself, was also important. The church accepted step by step the idea of the uniqueness of the Holocaust and condemned anti-Semitism as a totally non-Christian attitude.

The Jewish response was generally positive. Although many Poles have a sense of guilt, they are also very proud of the more than 4,500 Poles who saved Jewish lives at the risk of their own, and who are commemorated by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem.

The young generation born in the 1960s and 1970s became interested in learning about the past in order to create a better future. They wanted to protect the Polish-Jewish heritage as part of the Polish cultural identity. Young students study Jewish languages, history, culture and religion in Krakow at Poland's oldest university. For several years the former Jewish quarter of Krakow has been the venue for Jewish cultural festivals where Jews from different countries meet Poles who are fascinated by Jewish culture and want to make friends.

There is a remarkable rebirth of the Jewish community in Poland which is basically dependent on the younger generation of the Polish-Jewish intelligensia. Most were brought up as atheists and became interested in their religious and cultural roots during the 1980s. They have begun a step by step reconstruction of the Jewish religious tradition by setting up schools for their children. The redefinition of themselves as Jews is a counterpart to the longing on the side of Polish non-Jews for dialogue and for the participation of Jews in Polish public life and culture.

Since the end of World War II and the various efforts for reconciliation, there is a chance of living together and of finding neighbours behind the veil of alienation.

Nowadays a 16-year-old boy visits Krakow's old Jewish quarter to understand better the living memory and presence of those who form a part of his national tradition and sense of patriotism. He is a son of the boy who walked along the streets of Kazimierz, discovering an unknown and fascinating land, and who passed his fascination on to his child.
Milowit Kuninski